Rebecca Seidel ’15 reviews the Thesis Art Exhibition, and sits down with Kamar Thomas ’12, to discuss his seven-painting thesis series, “me, myself, & i”.
For an incredible dose of fresh ideas manifested in artwork of all dimensions, I recommend heading over to the Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery, where the Thesis Art Exhibition is currently in full swing. This annual showcase features select works from the thesis projects of seniors in the Department of Art & Art History‘s Art Studio program.
Each senior had a chance to display a larger sampling of his or her work last month, in more specialized five-day exhibits featuring five or six students each. This final exhibition brings all the senior theses together into a comprehensive spectacle. It’s astonishing to observe all the different concepts and media these seniors chose to explore. Even though each senior only gets to display one piece of art in this final showing, the walls still brim with evidence of all the thought and creativity that went into each project.
Evidence of this creativity is not limited to the Zilkha Gallery. If you’ve visited the main dining hall at the Usdan University Center recently, you’ve probably noticed that the back walls have a new infusion of color. Those vibrant faces that have caught your eye are two paintings from the thesis series of Kamar Thomas ’12, me, myself, & i. The Usdan University Center bought these paintings from Mr. Thomas and now has them on display.
All seven paintings in his thesis are self-portraits, each contributing to an exploration of self-conception and identity. As he explains in the description mounted next to his painting at the Zilkha Gallery, issues of identity are especially important to him because of the life transitions he has experienced: “I grew up on Jamaica and spent my entire life there, only moving to the United States to study at Wesleyan University four years ago. I have encountered the need to be flexible while staying connected to my past as I navigate my ever-changing present.”
For each self-portrait, Mr. Thomas would cover his own face in paint, then have his face photographed. He would then edit that photograph in Photoshop. The resulting image would be the inspiration for his painting. The resulting works of art are eye-catchingly colorful and hard to forget.
I got a chance to sit down with Mr. Thomas and talk to him about his artwork. Here is some of what he had to say.
Tell me a little bit about your thesis.
Well, it’s inspired by my own biography, having moved from Jamaica to here. Each of [the paintings] in the series is my way of making another identity that isn’t directly connected to anything else. So, for instance my skin is dark. You look and say, ‘Oh, it’s a black guy.’ But if you paint it, then what is it? It really is an exploration of the flexibility of what identity is.
How did you come up with the idea for your thesis?
Playing around, coming up with a couple of ideas, bouncing ideas off my advisor – many, many things. I can’t really spend such huge amounts of time [on a project] unless I have a personal connection to it. So it was experimenting – finding something that interested me that I know other people wanted to see, too.
What have the reactions been like?
They’ve been so great. I felt like a rock star at my own show. There were so many people. I even sold some of [my paintings]. You know how great that feels? If you become an English major, it’s like writing a thesis and having a publisher going, ‘I want to sell your book.’ I still can’t believe it.
It must be cool to walk upstairs at Usdan and see your paintings on the walls.
It’s just so weird. If anything is filmed at Usdan, my paintings will be in the background. That’s my claim to fame.
In your description of your thesis series, you said that you ‘select images to paint based on their emotional impact and on how exciting they will be to paint.’ Do you think your paintings have had an emotional impact?
Yes, I would say they have emotional impact. At first, people will see it and think, ‘Oh my God, this looks great,’ and they won’t really think why until long afterwards. Then the intellect will kick in and go, ‘Well, how did you come up with this idea?’ As much as I like high art, I don’t want to be the person where you need to have taken nine Art History courses to even begin to grasp what these things mean. They’re very loud. They’re kind of like pop music – a lot of people like it, but there are still some hipsters who are like, ‘This is too mainstream for me.’ At the show, people were like, ‘Well, I don’t really like it, but it took a lot of work, so congratulations.’ It’s all right – I don’t want everyone to like it, anyway.
How did you publicize your own work?
The school helps you. The school prints out the flyers and whatnot, and the senior thesis exhibition has happened every year since painting has been offered here, so it’s out there. Also, I had a Facebook event. All the painters in my week had a Facebook event, so their friends were coming. I told a few people, and these few people told some more people – so it was word of mouth, Facebook, and people who I met randomly at dinners.
Each of your paintings is unique, but they all have some common characteristics. How did you go about creating these pieces? Did you work on them all at once?
At first, I did them serially. The real learning curve happened during my Christmas break and spring break, when I had nothing to do except paint – so I’d just get up and paint. I started working on each of them at the same time. It was, I would say, far more fun than doing any other thesis. It wasn’t difficult at all. It took work, but once you stopped complaining about that – I mean, you’re painting. You’re not digging a hole sixty feet below the Earth’s surface, searching for shiny rocks. You’re painting.
How long did each piece take you to paint?
The first one took forever. The very first one took from September to the beginning of November, I believe. The second one took three weeks. The third one took all of Christmas break. I took from January till spring break to do another one, and then during spring break I finished three. And then I was done early, and I didn’t know what to do with myself.
I guess you never got tired of painting?
Hell, no. I know some people are burnt out by it. But, you know, if you’ve already decided to disappoint your parents, you might as well do it on a grand, impressive scale. Even if I was tired of it, I would never mention it or bring it up. So no, I never got tired of it. And right now I have a lot of ideas for my next paintings.
That must be exciting.
Oh, extremely exciting. I’m moving to New York City, and seeing how that plays out. I’m going to move somewhere and paint in my apartment, wherever I am.
I know that in order to create a thesis, Art Studio majors have to raise funds themselves. What was that like?
I begged like I have never begged before. I worked like I have never worked before. Because I’m international, I can’t work off campus, and I’m only allowed twenty hours a week to work. So at the end of my sophomore year, I realized, I’m going to have to start painting and selling now. Otherwise – no thesis. No money, no thesis.
My thesis in total cost between three and five thousand dollars – I was talking to a few people, and they were shocked that the school didn’t provide the materials. It was harder to raise the money than it was to make the paintings.
Do you think the University should supply more funding for Studio Art thesis work?
Definitely. If I ever have large sums of money, I’ll do it myself. The formula is so simple: no money, no thesis. No one cares how much talent you have or what you’re trying to do. Because, I mean, you’re not the next Picasso, and even if you are, you won’t know, because you don’t have any money to try.
Have you always liked art?
Nope. [In Jamaica], I didn’t know about the concept of a museum or art as a means to sustain yourself, or art as a means of expression or making an emotional impact. I came here and took some art history courses and saw that there were textbooks written on it – just a whole field dedicated to it.
What about actually painting – doing it yourself?
Growing up nearsighted, poor hand-eye coordination, born broke, I just wasn’t exposed to it. But once I was, I liked it; loved it.
Was painting self-portraits a self-reflective process for you?
That’s putting it mildly. You want to know yourself? Paint yourself seven times. You really want to know yourself? Go outside in broad daylight with your face in full makeup, with two women holding up a mirror and a background behind you and another woman taking a picture, and having school children walk by. You will develop a level of confidence that you didn’t even know you had.
The Thesis Art Exhibition will continue in Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery until Saturday, May 26, 2012. There will be a reception on Saturday, May 26, 2012, from 2pm to 4pm.